Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas With the Czech New Wave

Christmas is very busy this year, hence the paucity of new postings.

A few days ago for some reason I got excited about this subject. That excitement has been tempered by the unfortunate circumstance that I can't find any selections of my featured films which have English subtitles, along with the usual effects that the passing of a couple of days has on a momentary enthusiasm. I am going to go ahead with it anyway.

This is the opening of Closely Watched Trains. As noted earlier there are no subtitles, and the theme music/credits get cut off before they are finished. This is too bad, as this is one of my favorite openings to a movie of all time, right up there with The Third Man, which is the only other favorite I can think of offhand. It kind of comes out of nowhere while at the same time feeling and looking to me more like what what actual life really is than almost all of ordinary experience. The tone, the pace and the energy of the writing and action, as in most of the movies I like best, are such to depict a world I find interesting, perhaps such as I could see myself inhabiting with some degree of engagement. This movie of course is set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, so I do not mean to intimate that I would have wanted to inhabit or enjoyed inhabiting that aspect, or really any other, of this depiction; only that certain of its attitudes and preoccupations strike me as being in some sympathy with what I might feel, or want to feel, in some instance myself.

This is the infamous stamping scene. As you can imagine, this girl is of the type of which most of my youthful dreams were made, only to find that her like, alas, is not so common in real life as in the movies.

Here is the beginning of another favorite, Loves of a Blonde, directed by Milos Forman, who later went on to achieve great success in Hollywood with such hits as Hair, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, and The People Versus Larry Flynt. Like Closely Watched Trains, this film has a perfectly human-scale feel to it that is rare in movies. Now that I think of it, the very geography of that part of the world, both natural and man-made, tends to be almost uncannily human-scaled, certainly in comparison with the United States. The towns and cities, the landscape, the transport systems, when one is there, feel wholly the proper size for human use, certainly not larger. If you are a really gigantic mind or personality I suppose this would be brutally confining to you; of course most people are not. Another reason I feel an affinity with these films is that they are never quite wholly serious, in the way a heavy delving into the darkness of the human soul a la such Eastern Bloc contemporaries as Tarkovsky, or Wajda or Polanski would be. I know there are subtle and pointed commentaries on the system in them under the surface and all, but a sense of unconscious moral stridency or confidence is missing. The Czech people tend to strike outsiders as unusally amoral. It is not that they have no code of right and wrong, and certainly there are rules and customs that it is expected people will observe at a certain personal level, but on the biggest, potentially most dangerous and destructive questions, it is almost taken for granted that people will act as they please and as they are able, and not according to any universal code of justice. This is a weakness undoubtedly, though being honest about it makes for some interesting forays in the arts, moreso than either pretending to have ironclad moral convictions when one doesn't, or to have moral convictions the implications of which one doesn't understand.

This nicely-done and beautifully human-scaled scene is not one in which it is hard to figure out what is happening. In a capitalist system there is no way the table with the cute girls would be hanging out at this kind of low key party attended by lots of not so good-looking people. However under communism their options for more exclusive, higher end fun are severely curtailed, the authoritarian regime compels them to associate with and belong to groups which consist of large numbers of average to below-average looking people. From the point of view of a person for whom finding parties where it was even possible to sit and talk or dance with reasonably attractive girls was a handful of occasions in a lifetime kind of experience, this limited mobility system is awfully appealing.

This looks like it may have been filmed at the Lucerna Ballroom in Prague. I went to a dance there once. That was a great time, civilized, and many attractive women with recognizably human-scaled egos. Why in the world are such scenes so comparatively rare?

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